Emma. review – an adaptation too anxious about its heroine

Autumn de Wilde’s take on the Jane Austen classic tries to bury its lead character's meanness under pleasant images and sweet music

Redemption narratives are risky. They tend to require the reader (or spectator) to endure the worrisome or downright deplorable antics of an anti-hero for part of the story, before being rewarded with the character’s newfound self-awareness, deserved shame, and humility. There’s a lot of unpleasantness to get through to get to the morally good stuff.

Jane Austen’s Emma has always asked a lot of its reader. Emma Woodhouse, a young woman living in the quaint town of Highbury in the early 19th century, starts out as a privileged, self-satisfied, and manipulative person who declares herself to be a great matchmaker out of boredom and a desire for control. Yet what makes Austen’s book especially interesting and surprisingly gratifying is how it frames Emma’s misbehaviour as the result of her limited, twisted, and twisting perception. We are inside her head and her choices make sense to us until, together with Emma, we progressively realise that we’ve been judging everything wrong: her and our own perception were clouded by Emma’s self-interest. The ultimate humbling is both Emma’s and ours.

For all these reasons, it is a particularly challenging book to adapt for the screen – a fact that hasn’t exactly deterred filmmakers from trying. Autumn de Wilde’s new version, titled Emma., is a film that seems paradoxically, painfully aware of the difficulty of the enterprise it engages in. The overall tone is one of contrived frolicking. The camera insists on the pastel colours of beautiful houses and on the intricate mechanisms of women’s gowns, while the relentless orchestral soundtrack twirls vertiginously and uninterrupted – as though to distract from the nasty behaviour of our titular heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy). De Wilde seems not to trust the text to solve the problem of its unpleasant protagonist; instead the director tries to bury Emma’s meanness under layers of merely pleasant images and overwhelmingly sweet music.

Taylor-Joy herself appears fearful of Emma’s selfishness. She plays her character’s arrogance as a facade, rather than as Emma’s tried-and-tested approach to the world – one that grants her control over her life and her own narrative. Being self-centred should come as second nature to Emma. Taylor-Joy looks down her nose at everyone with cartoonish emphasis and her melodramatic power walks feel more appropriate for a high school than for the English countryside (perhaps she aimed to echo Alicia Silverstone’s peerless performance in Amy Heckerling’s Emma-inspired classic Clueless). By playing Emma as so evidently aware of her own hubris, Taylor-Joy ensures that the pay-off of Emma’s maturing is not only less impactful, but also barely plausible.

Yet it would be unfair to single-out Taylor-Joy for being too theatrical when almost all the other actors follow suit (Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton gives a particularly baffling performance made of gratuitously strange intonations and facial contractions that disturb more than they entertain). De Wilde accentuates the more commercial and charming ensemble comedy-of-manners aspects of Austen’s story to the detriment of not only its more intimate, emotional moments, but also its narrative coherence. Emma’s biased perception of the people around her gets mixed up with the more objective, external one of the director: the audience can see the silent but meaningful looks these characters exchange, even as Emma doesn’t. The entire structure of the book gets wobbly.

Only Johnny Flynn plays his George Knightley with the more palatable credibility that the book itself implies, and delivers it brilliantly. He finally passes his honesty onto Taylor-Joy when, at last, Emma sees the error of her ways. When Taylor-Joy eventually drops her pretence of vanity, her performance gains in humanity and the film, belatedly, finds its footing. The redemption narrative completes its arc, but at too steep a price.

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